I have very few female friends, and I have no experience whatsoever with the state of female Torah education, but the general impression I get is that women learn far more Tanakh and Midrash than men do. And in fact, we see far fewer Orthodox women involved in scandals than men. I am sure that it is possible for ethics to be learned osmotically from halakhah, but this requires an encyclopedic level of learning, where one may extrapolate from the Talmud all the ethical insights that went into the laws. But in Hazal's times, 1000 children went in to learn Tanakh, and only 100 progressed to Mishnah, and only 10 to Talmud. There is a reason why Tanakh was emphasized, and why the Talmud includes aggadot; it is because ethics must be taught explicitly, and not only implicitly. Hazal knew the Tanakh, and took its teachings for granted, but did not systematically teach its values in the Talmud, most likely because they indeed took its values for granted and assumed that everyone had already learned the Tanakh thoroughly! With Orthodox women today, I believe, we see something of the reason why Hazal felt the way they did.
However, there is another important factor as well, I believe. There is not only a negative lack of ethics, I believe, but also a positive distortion of ethics. That is, it is not merely that rabbis do not teach enough ethics, but more, it is that when they do in fact teach ethics, they teach the wrong ethics. There was recently a scandal regarding a rabbi teaching his congregation how they could avoid paying their taxes with the permission of the Torah; this is, I believe, a perfect example of a positive distortion of ethics.
Rabbi Goldman does speak about this subject. He says,
It would be quite wrong to presume that holiness, devotional piety, Torah knowledge and observance of ritual law are identical with or somehow perforce lead to ethical behavior. In reality, holiness, devotional piety, Torah knowledge and observance of ritual law can mislead a person into believing that he/she is beyond the need for ethical behavior! Additionally, the analytic and highly complex interpretive methodologies one is trained in, the rabbinic legal fictions one is exposed to and the endless divergence of opinions and divergences of opinions built on divergences of opinions can be enlisted to rationalize unethical behavior. The tradition itself points out these concerns: "Once (Torah) wisdom enters a person cunning enters within him" (Sotah 21b). The sages warned against becoming a "pervert with permission of the Torah"(Ramban on Parashat Kedoshim 19:2)."
I believe that what he has just said is exactly the problem, but I wish to say a little bit more. Professor Marc Shapiro, in Responses to Comments and Elaborations of Previous Posts III quotes Rabbi Yehuda Amital as saying,
We live in an era in which educated religious circles like to emphasize the centrality of Halakha, and commitment to it, in Judaism. I can say that in my youth in pre-Holocaust Hungary, I didn't hear people talking all the time about "Halakha." People conducted themselves In the tradition of their forefathers, and where any halakhic problems arose, they consulted a rabbi. Reliance on Halakha and unconditional commitment to it mean, for many people, a stable anchor whose purpose is to maintain the purity of Judaism, even within the modern world. To my mind, this excessive emphasis of Halakha has exacted a high cost. The impression created is that there is nothing in Torah but that which exists in Halakha, and that in any confrontation with the new problems that arise in modern society, answers should be sought exclusively in books of Halakha. Many of the fundamental values of the Torah which are based on the general commandments of "You shall be holy" (Vayikra 19:2) and "You shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God" (Devarim 6:18), which were not given formal, operative formulation, have not only lost some of their status, but they have also lost their validity in the eyes of a public that regards itself as committed to Halakha.
Rabbi Goldman said, "Additionally, the analytic and highly complex interpretive methodologies one is trained in...can be enlisted to rationalize unethical behavior." Professor Shapiro comments on Rabbi Amital's words, saying,
I believe that the "halakho-centrism" that Amital criticizes has another pernicious influence, and that is the overpopulation of "halakhic" Jews who have been involved in all sorts of illegal activities. A major problem we have is that it is often the case that all sorts of halakhic justifications can be offered for these illegal activities. One whose only focus in on halakhah, without any interest in the broad ethical underpinnings of Judaism, and the Ramban's conception of Kedoshim Tihyu, can entirely lose his bearings and turn into a "scoundrel with Torah license."
Rabbi Goldman said, "In reality, holiness, devotional piety, Torah knowledge and observance of ritual law can mislead a person into believing that he/she is beyond the need for ethical behavior!"; apposite this, Professor Shapiro says,
[Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov] Weinberg's concerns in this area were not merely motivated by the distressing phenomenon of halakhically observant people who showed a lack of ethical sensitivity. His problem was much deeper in that he feared that this lack of sensitivity was tied into the halakhic system itself. In other words, he worried that halakhah, as generally practiced, sometimes led to a dulling of ethical sensitivity.
Professor Shapiro brings a story to illustrate his whole point:
I went to Gateshead to interview him [viz. Rakov] about his relationship with Weinberg. When I got there I had a few hours until our meeting so I paid a visit to the local seforim store. I found a book I wanted and asked the owner how much it cost. He gave me a price, and then added that if I was a yeshiva student there was a discount. When I later met with Rakov I asked him if it would have been OK for me to ask one of the yeshiva students to buy the book at discount, and then I could pay him for it. He replied that there was certainly no halakhic problem involved. After all, the first student acquires the book through a kinyan and then I buy it from him. But he then added: "Yet it would not be ethical."
I believe we have lost sight of just what our aim is. We have forgotten what place ethics plays in Judaism and Torah. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say, we are a messenger whose forgotten his message. According to Dr. Yitzchok Levine (Orthodoxy, Then and Now),
Could it be that we have become lost in the forest for the trees? While we may be outwardly more observant than people were a generation or two ago, some would maintain that our grandparents embraced far more menschlichkeit and ehrlichkeit than we see today. Their Yiddishkeit seems to have been simpler and more to the point than ours often is.
Our grandparents were able to transmit their Yiddishkeit in a fairly simple fashion. One might summarize their teachings as follows: Be a mensch, learn Torah, and make the most of every minute of every day. Keep in mind that people are watching you and they will judge Yiddishkeit by how you behave, so make sure that whatever you do is viewed as a kiddush Hashem - a sanctification of God's name. Be sure to become self-sufficient through honest labor and contribute to the community at large. And, above all, be ehrlich in all of your dealings with others.
This message was clear and straightforward, and it led to the rebuilding of Yiddishkeit after the terrible loses that we experienced during the Holocaust. The guidance our grandparents gave their children kept them from the confusing blend of halacha, minhag, chumrah and common practice that has left too many today groping for an understanding of what is important and what is not. There were no mixed messages about what they taught the next generation, because they lived these values each and every day of their lives.
In fact, the Tanakh already presents the ethical problems we face today. We'd have Jews punctiliously bringing their sacrifices to the Temple while meanwhile oppressing the poor. Told by the Prophets that disaster would soon befall them, they'd answer that as G-d's chosen people, this threat surely could not be true. Our present situation was already depicted starkly in the Tanakh; perhaps we ought to learn from history.
In addition to all the very specific programs Rabbi Goldman proposes to teach ethics, I have a much more basic and fundamental suggestion: more Tanakh, more Midrash, less Mishnah, less Talmud. We have to ask ourselves anew, just what is Judaism, what is Torah? Why are we here? What is our goal? It is not merely than we need more ethics; we rather need to ask ourselves anew, why do we need ethics? What does Judaism believe about ethics? An entire reevaluation of our weltanschauung (world outlook, hashqafa) is in order.